Wednesday, September 21, 2005


The economic crisis was affecting my school.

We were not attracting as many students as we would have liked and a number of excellent staff were not having their contracts renewed. To try to keep up numbers, we were taking in students who had been rejected by other institutions; some of them seemed to have disturbed behaviour. The top man in the school had left to take up a new post in another part of Asia. Our new boss of bosses had instituted a longer school day and we seemed to be having more meetings and more paperwork than ever before.

The price of rice was rising fast and so were tensions in the kampungs; many Indonesian children could no longer afford to go to school; in Jakarta, banks were going bankrupt.

The skies were darkening. This was due to huge forest fires in Eastern Indonesia rather than smoke from the shopping malls that were being burnt by rioters; the Chinese-Indonesian timber barons were blamed for the smoke-filled skies; satellite pictures showed that fires were burning in woodland right next to oil palm plantations and forestry concessions.

Late one evening I got sick. As there was a little red blood in my vomit, I made an immediate visit to the private Indah hospital. A doctor, with the big features of a rugby player, dismissed my symptoms as being minor and sent me away with what looked like a sneer.

Next evening I started to vomit and wretch. Blood was coming up and on one occasion it was enough to fill a cup. I phoned for a taxi and within half an hour had reached the Indah hospital. I apologised to the taxi driver for the pools of blood on the floor of his vehicle. In the emergency ward, I was shown to a bed and examined by a gentle white-haired doctor with a soothing manner.

"It’s acute gastritis," said the doctor. "Probably brought on by some virus."

I was given an injection, which stopped the vomiting, and was admitted to a spacious room with a TV and a private bathroom. I had a tickly throat and a pain in the guts and I was shivering with cold. I switched off the air conditioning and tried to sleep. My dreams seemed to proceed at high speed; it was as if I had a hangover and was full of toxins; turning over in bed was a problem as my arm was attached to a plastic tube.

The next few days brought good news. Blood tests showed no sign of diseases such as typhoid, malaria or dengue fever. An endoscopy revealed only slight scarring inside me. The doctor declared that I seemed to be recovering from whatever mystery bug I had caught.

I liked my room, although I had some minor criticisms of the hospital. I noted that the cleaning lady only gave the bathroom a brief and ineffective swish with a filthy mop; the rather pedestrian food was brought to me by a starved looking young man whose jacket sleeves were grubby and worn; the nurse, who adjusted the tube going into my arm, was not as skilled as the emergency ward nurses, and she allowed blood to spatter onto the floor; no stool samples were taken.

I had a visit from one of my bosses, an ever cheerful gentleman, who brought me magazines. And I had a visit from young Irfan, the guard and gardener at my house. When Irfan had suffered a broken arm, after colliding with a hit-and-run driver, I had taken him to the Indah hospital and visited him. Now he was repaying me and I was grateful.

"How are things?" I asked Irfan. "Everyone well?"

"Everyone well," said Irfan.

"I’m the only one to get sick?"

"Ami’s been ill," said Irfan, referring to my maid.

"Vomiting?" I asked.

"Yes," said Irfan. "She’s better now."

"I’ll give you some money to pay for her to get a check-up at the doctor," I said.

Within a few days I was back at home. I decided to do my own cooking for the weeks that followed, even though Ami had received a clean bill of health from the clinic.

What had made me ill? My guess was that it was stress that had made me vulnerable to some kind of stomach bug which had in turn led to nausea. Vomiting can, on very rare occasions, lead to tearing of the inner lining at the point where the stomach meets the oesophagus. Bleeding can result from the tear.

As Ami had been ill, it is possible that I had contracted a stomach bug from her. Dukuns, of the wicked kind, can cause the vomiting of blood. I assumed that I had not been poisoned by some dukun.

One Saturday morning I collected Min and his family and we set off in my Mitsubishi van to the little town of Lamaya; we were on a house hunt. After about twenty miles of wide, flat toll road we turned onto a series of narrow, minor roads. Fields of rice and vegetables to left and right were frequently hidden by shady woodland which provided shelter for villages.

"What sort of price are you expecting to pay for a house in Lamaya?" I asked Min’s big brother Wardi, who was sitting behind me, in the middle section of the Mitsubishi.

"About twenty to thirty million rupiahs," said Wardi.

"Are you going to sell your two houses in Teluk Gong?" I asked.

"We have lots of relatives who can make use of those houses," said Wardi.

There was a period of silence. I had been thinking that the sale of the Teluk Gong houses would help to pay for a house in Lamaya. On the other hand, I was being paid in dollars, there was a glut of housing, and we were fast approaching the point where a twenty million rupiah house could be had for about two thousand dollars. I decided not to argue about money.

I began to think that Lamaya was a considerable distance from Jakarta and I would no longer be able to make my usual frequent visits to Min. To comfort myself I thought about how much Min had changed for the better. His behaviour had become more calm and I noted that, when I went for walks with the family, Min always took the hand of Wardi.

Lamaya has a wide chocolate-coloured river, Dutch-style municipal buildings painted in white, a market with small dusty shops and banks, several areas of open-space covered in rough pasture, and various jumbles of red-roofed kampung houses. The town has the feel of a pleasant garden.

The first house we were to look at was deep inside a crowded, traffic-free kampung. We walked in single file along sunny lanes peopled by smiling children playing with homemade carts and kites. Having passed small gardens of banana and bougainvillea, we came to a minute white and green mosque and then a tiny square in the centre of which two happy schoolboys were playing a languid game of table tennis. We entered a flat-roofed house at one corner of the square.

The house was brick and concrete but had no indoor supply of water. It seemed cramped, like the neighbourhood surrounding it. The price seemed high, for such a simple house.

We drove out from the centre of town until we reached a long winding street shaded by enormously tall trees. Here the atmosphere was more rural. Bicycles and bicycle-powered becak taxis moved slowly over potholes and around skinny dogs. There were gardens with fruit trees and chickens and ducks. The houses, all homemade, varied from the tumbledown wooden type to the grander brick and concrete affairs with red-tiled roofs.

We entered a large house which stood under some particularly dark trees. The rooms were poorly lit and full of cobwebs. The price being asked was above thirty million rupiahs, which impressed Min’s mum. She liked the place.

A little further along the same street we came to our third house, a sunny white painted home with a big red roof. The windows and doors looked smart and modern. The front room was large, high-ceilinged and light. The house had the benefit of a basic kitchen, with a well, and a simple indoor toilet. The price was just over twenty million rupiahs.

"There are rambutan trees at the back of the house," said Min’s mum excitedly.

"We can keep chickens in the back scullery," said Wardi.

Min looked happy and at ease. Wardi’s pretty wife was all smiles.

As we drove back to Jakarta, it was agreed that the third house was the one to buy. I would contact my bank and Wardi would look into the legal side of the purchase.

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